Flying The Crowded Skies At Christmas

Peter Maer is a White House correspondent for CBS News.
The government appears poised to approve a Christmas-to-New Year's air traffic plan similar to the effort designed to ease congestion over the busy Thanksgiving rush.

A Transportation Department official tells CBS News, there is "a lot of optimism" that the end of year travel period will see a repeat of the plan that allowed more commercial flights to use East Coast airspace normally reserved for military aircraft. Officials believe it helped prevent some airport traffic jams during Thanksgiving although weater still delayed thousands of flights.

Since the late December travel period involves a much broader time frame than Thanksgiving, air traffic experts are consulting on the peak times and days that military airspace would be opened to commerical airliners. A final decision is expected next week.

The Transportation Department official says airline executives used a conference call with the government two days ago to promote a re-authorization of the Thanksgiving plan. The department estimates 100 commercial flights used the military space on each of the peak flying days in late November. It wasn't the first time the government opened the military air lanes to commercial flights. The FAA can ask the military for use of the airspace on a daily or even hourly basis.

When the Thanksgiving strategy was announced, President Bush described it as an effort to "bring order to America's skies."

But the president and aviation experts agreed that the holiday quick-fix would not end the problems that have caused major hassles for air travelers. In something of an understatement, he said, "In certain parts of our country, the demand for air service exceeds the available supply." The administration is considering efforts to pressure airlines to schedule more flights in off-peak times. Among the ideas is "congestion pricing," charging airlines and other aircraft owners more for take-offs and landings in the busy dayparts that are so popular with many travelers.

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    Peter Maer is a CBS News White House Correspondent.